Chris Dugan's response to "UC Berkeley study finds no lasting harm among adolescents from moderate spanking earlier in childhood," by Patricia McBroom, Media Relations - U. of California at Berkeley
August 24, 2001

McBOOM: UC Berkeley study finds no lasting harm among adolescents from moderate spanking earlier in childhood, By Patricia McBroom, Media Relations

Berkeley - Occasional spanking does not damage a child's social or emotional development, according to a study of long-term consequences in the lives of more than 100 families, reported today (Friday, Aug. 24) by a University of California, Berkeley, psychologist. The research presented by Diana Baumrind, who co-authored the study with Elizabeth Owens, both research psychologists at UC Berkeley's Institute of Human Development, calls into question a current claim that any physical punishment is harmful to a child.

DUGAN: Diana Baumrind is a respectable researcher. This study is hardly "the best" though, since it was not subjected to peer review, and is based on a small sample size. The nonspanked group was only 4% of the sample, which meant it consisted of only 4 or 5 children. In contrast, the combined sample size of Straus et al (1997) and Gunnoe & Mariner (1997) was roughly 2,000 children, and Gelles & Straus (1990) was based on a sample size of over 8,000.

A sample size of "over 100" may sound like a lot but in statistical terms it really isn't. But let's leave that aside and proceed on to the actual results such as they were.

McBOOM: The study separates out parents who use spanking frequently and severely - : resulting in evidence of harm - and focuses on those families who occasionally : spank their children, a practice that Baumrind calls normal for the population : sampled.

DUGAN: This included parents who take the Bible literally and use a "rod" of some sort for spanking. It also included parents who used harsh methods (like crushed red pepper in the mouth).

McBOOM: By "spanking," Baumrind refers to striking the child on the buttocks, hands or legs with an open hand without inflicting physical injury and with the intention of modifying the child's behavior.

DUGAN: This is what the Aylmer Church of God parents in Ontario became international fugitives in order to avoid having to do: use their hands for spanking instead of implements. What Baumrind and Owens have done is further add to the evidence linking long term harm with the kind of spanking defended by the most highly active and vocal members of the prospank movement. If I can obtain a copy, read it and be certain of how it was designed etc., I would enjoy having yet another study to cite in order to buttress certain points in the antispanking position. Despite the way the early media reports are spinning the news of this paper, this new study is not a serious challenge to the antispank position at all, and I suspect, will be useful to the antispanking cause despite its small sample size.

McBROOM: Baumrind's study also compares spanking with another kind of discipline, namely verbal punishment. "We found no evidence for unique detrimental effects of normative physical punishment," Baumrind said in an invited address to the American Psychological Association annual meeting today in San Francisco.

DUGAN: Since the actual study is not being published, it is difficult to determine what parameters were used here. What detrimental effects were the authors looking for and how were they operationally defined? What controls were used? I would look up this study and read it if it were published somewhere. But apparently it is only a paper which was read at a meeting.

McBOOM: : "I am not an advocate of spanking," said Baumrind, "but a blanket injunction : against its use is not warranted by the evidence. It is reliance on physical : punishment, not whether or not it is used at all, that is associated with harm : to the child."

DUGAN: Whenever anyone cites this study as if it vindicates spanking, I will be sure to remind them that the major author herself said that reliance on physical punishment is associated with harm to the child. This is not surprising. Baumrind has in the past concluded that authoritarian approaches to parenting are associated with long term negative effects on children. And neither this study, or any previous studies by Baumrind, have found any measurable evidence of any form of measurable long term benefit to children from spanking.

Once again, spanking has been placed under scientific scrutiny, and once again no evidence of long term benefit to children has come to light.

McBOOM: She said that, in the absence of compelling evidence of harm, parental autonomy and family privacy should be protected. Her study of spanking in middle-class, white families was undertaken in response to anti-spanking advocates who have claimed that physical punishment, by itself, has harmful psychological effects on children and hurts society as a whole.

These claims, Baumrind said, have not distinguished the effects of occasional mild-to-moderate spanking from more severe punishment, or taken into account such confounding factors as earlier child misbehavior and the effects of total child rearing patterns - from rejection, on one hand, to warmth and explanation, on the other.

DUGAN: It is true that no single study has controlled for all of the factors Baumrind mentions. However, various previous studies have controlled for most of the factors she mentions. ("Effects of total child rearing patterns" is awfully vague - I won't say if it has been controlled for in the past until I am certain what the phrase means in the present context).

As far as differences in severity are concerned, Strassberg et al (1994) separated out children subjected to more severe physical punishment even once in their lives from the rest of their spanked group and the correlation between spanking in the home and aggression at school remained significant. Regarding prior misbehavior, the experimental designs of Straus et al (1997) and Gunnoe & Mariner (1997) made the issue of earlier child misbehavior irrelevant by comparing parental ratings of the child's general overall conduct at two different times. Parental warmth and involvement was controlled for in Straus et al (1997).

I am disappointed that Baumrind apparently made statements to the press suggesting that no previous studies have addressed the factors she mentions, since this is not in fact true.

McBOOM: The UC Berkeley study, however, was able to account for all of these factors and others, due to its unique data base. The data were drawn from longitudinal records of child rearing and child outcome in California East Bay families collected at the Institute of Human Development. Families in the Family Socialization and Developmental Competence Project (FSP) were first studied in 1968 when their children were preschoolers, and then in 1972-73 and 1978-80, when the children were early primary schoolers and early adolescents.

DUGAN: This use of a pre-existing database is not "unique" but is actually quite similar to what the earlier larger studies of Straus et al (1997) and Gunnoe & Mariner (1997) did. (Again, I wish I had the actual paper to read rather than having to glean information through the filter of the popular media).

McBOOM: In addition to the rich archival material on parental styles and discipline, combined with independent observations and interviews with the children, Baumrind's team created a new instrument for the spanking study. Called the Parent Disciplinary Rating Scale, this instrument rated parents on their strategies for using discipline. Few of the families, only 4 percent, never used physical punishment when their children were preschoolers, but there was a wide range in the frequency and severity of spanking throughout the whole sample, said Baumrind. A small minority of parents, from 4 to 7 percent depending on the time period, used physical punishment often and with some intensity. Although these parents were not legally abusive, they were overly severe and used spanking impulsively. Hitting occurred frequently, but it was the intensity that really identified this group, said Baumrind. She said intensity was rated high if the parent said he or she used a paddle or other instrument to strike the child, or hit on the face or torso, or lifted to throw or shake the child.

This group of parents, identified in the "red zone" for "stop" was removed from the sample at the first stage of analysis. With them went most of the correlations initially found between spanking and long-term harm to children, said Baumrind.

"When we removed this 'red zone' group of parents," said Baumrind, "we were left with very few small but significant correlations between normative physical punishment and later misbehavior among the children at age 8 to 9.

DUGAN: In other words, even after removing the harshest spankers from the sample, Baumrind and Owens still found some significant correlations between spanking and later deterioration in children's behavior. This is to be expected, since it replicates earlier research, cited frequently by antispankers on the internet, which also found that spanking correlates with worse behavior in the long term.

Baumrind is a spanking apologist, at least for the least-severe forms of it, and her personal bias appears to have influenced the kinds of statements she made to the media and the kind of spin she hopes will be used. This is understandable. We saw something similar when Gunnoe & Mariner (1997) released their findings. These researchers, working out of a conservative Christian college, emphasized the nonsignificant findings regarding spanking and aggression in their statements to the press while ignoring the significant link they found between spanking and later increases in antisocial behavior. This latter finding was the opposite of what they had expected to find, and replicated the findings of Straus and other researchers. I will need to read the original Baumrind and Owens presentation paper to be certain, but it sounds as if history may be repeating itself here. I cite Gunnoe & Mariner (1997) as often as nearly any other paper, despite the initial media hype portraying it as support for spanking. It was not, and I don't believe this new Baumrind and Owens paper is either.

McBOOM: "Red zone parents are rejecting, exploitative and impulsive. They are parents who punish beyond the norm. You have very little to explain after you remove this small group." She said the few links that remained were explained by the child's prior misbehavior. In other words, when researchers controlled for the tendency of the child to be uncooperative or defiant as preschoolers, all correlations between spanking and harmful effects were close to zero.

DUGAN: I will examine this portion of the paper with great critical scrutiny once I obtain a copy of the paper. This news story does not provide any detail at all about how uncooperative tendencies or defiance were measured and how these variables were disentangled from parental perceptions which might also correlate with spanking behavior and with self-fulfilling negative parental expectations about the child, among other factors.

McBOOM: In addition to a "red zone," parents were classified into orange, yellow and green zones. "There were no significant differences between children of parents who spanked seldom (green zone) and those who spanked moderately (yellow zone)," Baumrind said.

DUGAN: This also comes as no surprise since it replicates the findings of Straus & Mouradian (1998), an earlier and larger study, which also found that the most infrequently spanked children did not differ significantly in antisocial behavior scores from the somewhat more frequently spanked children. The biggest distinction these authors found was between the infrequently spanked children and the children whose mothers never spanked them in their entire lives. The latter group were markedly more well behaved than even the most infrequently spanked children. Whether a similar significant difference was found in the new Baumrind & Owens study or not is impossible to determine from the news stories, but I will not be at all surprised to find such a correlation among the "few" which remained after the "red zone" parents were removed from the sample. We shall see.

McBOOM: Families in the orange zone could have used spanking often, but with little or no intensity. Those in the "yellow zone" used physical punishment only occasionally, with little or no intensity, while those in the "green zone" used little or no physical punishment with no intensity. The children of parents in the green zone who never spanked were not better adjusted than those, also in the green zone, who were spanked very seldomly, Baumrind said.

DUGAN: In other words, both nonspanked and infrequently-spanked children were lumped together in the "green zone." Only a reading of the actual paper will clarify if this was used as a "control group" or if the 4 or 5 never spanked children were used as a control group. Due to the small sample size of this study either approach would have problems. The former case would suffer from not being a true nonspanked control group, while the latter would suffer from being so small as to make numbers based on it statistically questionable.

McBOOM: Studies of verbal punishment yielded similar results, in that researchers found correlations just as high, and sometimes higher, for total verbal punishment and harm to the child, as for total physical punishment and harm.

DUGAN: This supports arguments advanced by Dorothy/toto, d'geezer, and others about the negative side effects of punishment in general. It further buttresses the position of parenting authors such as Thomas Gordon who advocate avoidance of all use of punishment and reward.

McBOOM: "What really matters," said Baumrind, "is the child rearing context. When parents are loving and firm and communicate well with the child (a pattern Baumrind calls authoritative) the children are exceptionally competent and well adjusted, whether or not their parents spanked them as preschoolers."

DUGAN: In other words, Baumrind is saying the same thing which numerous antispankers on the net have been saying for years, that it is possible to raise terrific kids without spanking them. All she would need to do to sound exactly like an antispanker would be to add the rhetorical question, "So why do it?!"

McBOOM: Baumrind emphasized that her study does not address at all the damaging effects of abusive physical punishment, of which she and other researchers have found ample evidence.

DUGAN: What Baumrind calls "abusive" would include cases of "spankings" which prospank activists have attempted to turn into national causes. Christopher Lab put himself beyond Baumrind's "red zone" when he left marks on his live-in girlfriend's 4 y.o. daughter's buttocks visible days later. He was the focus of a major support campaign by prospank activists earlier this year. At least some of the "spankings" at the church in Atlanta Georgia which won national attention a few months ago would also qualify as abusive under Baumrind's definition, despite the frenzied support one heard on the net from the usual people. Kay Henson, who was just this week convicted of misdemeanor battery for "spanking" her 10 y.o. son, also would fit Baumrind's definition of abusive, despite her status as a prospank and anti-CPS martyr. In other words, what the activist hard core of the prospank movement calls "spanking" includes practices which even Diana Baumrind says are linked with long term negative effects on children. Some of these people are slow to recognize the fact, but Dr. Baumrind is most assuredly not on their side.

At any rate, I eagerly look forward to obtaining a copy of the actual paper so that I can read it without any media spin and distortions interposing themselves. I anticipate that this paper will become a useful addition to the antispank rhetorical armamentorium, and I look forward to citing it in the future.

Chris Dugan

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